Michael's Reviews > China in Ten Words

China in Ten Words by Yu Hua
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's review
May 02, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: essays, non-fiction, china
Read in April, 2012


I must make a disclaimer. I am out of my depth. I know very little of China. The people. The politics. The economy. The history. I have only the most cursory knowledge of any of it. I know Mao. Or at least I know that no one seems to agree whether he should be on the same historical shelf as Hitler and Stalin or Marx and Trotsky. (Hopefully those distinctions are meaningful for all.)

I’ve met some emigrants, chatted with them about how uncomfortable they are with their children’s fascination with Japanese cultural and disregard for their own heritage. I’ve seen the blind dissident, Chen Guangcheng, capture the world’s attention and make the top U.S. diplomat, one Hilary Clinton, squirm in her seat. I’ve read rumblings in the Western media about the plight of the Uyghers. I’ve heard the faintest murmurs about Deng Xiaopeng’s facilitation of modern Chinese economics. I know the murkiest generalizations about the geography of China’s eastern seaboard, but almost nothing about the rest of the massive country. I know the Chinese speak many dialects, some mutually unintelligible, and not in the way I find the speech of someone from Alabama unintelligible. I know the economists don’t agree on whether to fear China or to embrace its tremendous growth. I know the U.S. military, or at least those in the Pentagon, assume the 21st century will be filled with conflict, however contained and diplomatic, in the Asian theater.

I’m missing a few things. But you get the idea. My knowledge of China is superficial. It amounts to a fraction of the whisper the Chinese political machine allows to escape its borders, which in turn is the result of a censorship surely unparalleled in human history, in scope and breadth. The roar of expression must be deafening, but we only hear half of the official version of Bo Xilai’s ouster. He plotted three ways to kill a police chief to protect his wife from prosecution for the murder of a British businessman. Though the politburo used this convenient controversy to end the career of Bo, who they thought was too charismatic, too Western, the police chief will surely be convicted of treason, a worse crime than murder or collusion. What of this, if anything, do we believe?

A discussion of China deserves many more than ten words, but Yu Hua uses this as a conceit to organize essays about his homeland in his recent book China in Ten Words. Each of those ten words – People, Leader, Reading, Writing, Lu Xun, Revolution, Disparity, Grassroots, Copycat, and Bamboozle – serve as jumping-off points for Yu to tell stories, mostly of growing up in China. Yu’s China is a country where one’s relationship with the state is in many ways more central to life than one’s relationship with family, friends and community. For most of Yu’s life, in China, nothing was more important than revolution. Expressions of revolt, however contrived in the framework of the Communist Party or State Capitalism, were the prime mover of all social interactions.

Maybe this is still so. I wouldn’t know.

In “People,” Yu makes evident the insular nature of China. None but the most major figures are commonly known outside of the country. We know Mao, Deng, Zhou. But who’s heard of Zhao Ziyang? To be fair, I should not endow my ignorance to all Westerners. Maybe most Americans over a certain age would have at least some familiarity with the name? For some reason, I’m doubtful.

In the 1960s Zhao Ziyang was the Secretary of the Communist Party in Guangdong, a promising popular voice of moderation in a time of great change in China known as the Cultural Revolution. Because of his moderate views, the Red Guards, a reactionary youth movement, removed him from power, parading him through Guangdong in a dunce cap, denounced as “a stinking remnant of the landlord class.”

In the 1970s, Premier Zhou Enlai helped bring Zhao Ziyang back into the political fold. His market reforms in Sichuan province helped heal the desperate wounds created by the Great Leap Forward. He became a popular, successful leader, engendering a laudatory folk-saying, “If you want to eat, look for Ziyang.”

While serving as General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1989, his voice was conciliatory with the protestors, whom hard-liners labeled as counterrevolutionaries. Here are some of his words, spoken through a bullhorn to a group of protestors on Tiananmen Square. This would be his last public appearance, sixteen years before his death.

“Students, we came too late. We are sorry. You talk about us, criticize us, it is all necessary. The reason that I came here is not to ask for your forgiveness. What I want to say is that you are all getting weak, it has been seven days since you went on a hunger strike, you can’t continue like this. As time goes on, your body will be damaged beyond repair, it could be very life-threatening. Now the most important thing is to end this strike. I know, your hunger strike is to hope that the Party and the government will give you a satisfying answer. I feel that our communication is open. Some of these problems can only be solved through certain procedures. For example, you have mentioned about the nature of the incident, the question of responsibility; I feel that those problems can be resolved eventually. We can reach a mutual agreement in the end. However, you should also know that the situation is very complicated. It is going to be a long process. You can’t continue the hunger strike longer than seven days, and still insist on receiving a satisfying answer before ending the hunger strike.”

These are not the words of China’s government today. The democratic reforms and dialogues opened by Zhou were swept under the table, with the man himself. State Capitalism is not democracy. Copycat smart phones are not democracy.

Or are they?

Yu is not as much of a dissident as we might like. After all, his books, though appreciated abroad, are also published and celebrated in China. If he were too critical of the current state of things, his voice might not be heard at all.

The worship of Mao and the way he enters the personal lives of everyone in China is a supreme example of the cult of personality, and completely unimaginable in the contemporary United States and most of the rest of the world. Perhaps at some point in the past, every American lived with the personalities and wisdom of the specters of the Founding Fathers, but I doubt this relationship ever took the same precedence as the relationship every person in China assumes with the words and image of Mao. Yu suggests this too may pass, but he never pretends to identify a breaking point where political insularity tips into democratic freedom through the avenue of market expression.

Yu observes China as a massive cultural experiment, where ideas can be tested on the grandest of scales. The culturally deprived, which was everyone before the Cultural Revolution, actually starved for culture. So, when books became available, everyone waited in line to get them, just as they would do for food or any other necessity. In a way, all people in China had to create fictions about themselves, defensive Big Character Posters, which helped them publically save face, a game of socialist facades.

I question the integrity of Yu’s flattering essay of the national writer of pre-Cultural Revolution China, Lu Xun, whose works were the only literature available other than Chairman Mao’s quotes and poetry. How could his work be other than compromised by censorship? But the polysemous nature of literature makes whatever is available valuable in any number of ways.

Still, Yu is able to give an intimate picture of life in China. Most of his portrayals are honest and complex. The line between acceptable, encouraged rebellion and treason, capitalist-sympathizing is imperceptible and amounts to a mere trick of presentation and attitude. Though the second richest country in the world, China is only the one-hundredth richest when considered per capita, showing a huge disparity between the State Economy’s beneficiaries and those left behind. The idea of the “grassroots” people finding money and power in the smallest opening of a marketplace is a strange, skewed version of America’s own Horatio Alger story, the “rags-to-riches” tale which inevitably leads back to rags. The Chinese people have found their own unique types of freedom, in the entrepreneurial copycat spirit of commerce and co-opting things that are controlled by the state, on a smaller, more personal level.

At the same time, Yu plays into certain stereotypes of modern China. The theme of powerless people pulling one over on the system or anyone in power runs through these essays, as if it must be an important part of Chinese life.

The narratives here are, on the surface, mostly quaint. Schoolchildren lampoon their teachers. Real estate agents bamboozle the media. Young Yu extracts the slightest bit of erotica from political propaganda. Yu Hua paints a vivid portrait of his home in China in Ten Words, but many of the blemishes we expect have been corrected and censored, so the picture cannot be taken for reality.
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